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Richard Fromewick Authors, "Nassau Time Bomb: Tax Assessment" for Newsday

Nov 20, 2001

Nassau County Executive elect Tom Suozzi is suggesting some powerful morning-after medicine for a financial binge that has left Nassau on the verge of a financial control board.

Hours after his election victory, he stunned political friend and foe alike by suggesting that property owners might have to shoulder a property-tax increase of 15 percent to deal with the deficit. As difficult as that may be to consider, it is a relatively easy response to the multimillion-dollar revenue shortfall that he is inheriting. Suozzi is now seeking the fastest fix possible to prevent the county’s books from being taken over by the control board.

Getting a tax increase of that size through the legislature will require the skills of a chess master. But for Suozzi the really tough part will come later when he is faced with the task of implementing the radical overhaul of how Nassau taxes commercial and residential property. As the Republicans depart the Nassau County executive’s office, they are leaving behind a treacherous booby trap for an unwary Democrat to defuse – the re-evaluation of thousands of parcels of commercial and residential real estate.

Ineptly handled, the resulting political explosion could make any politician a one-term wonder. Correctly executed, the re-evaluation could bring sanity to a system that is inherently unfair, already decreed illegal and destructive to the county’s long term financial stability, economic growth and ability to attract new business and families to the region.

At the heart of the issue is the need to end the chaos of widely disparate tax rates. For example, the Hempstead school district has a tax rate of $91 for homes and $80 for commercial properties. If you go across the street into Garden City, the home tax rate is $48 and the commercial rate is $44.

The drive for fairness will be crucial at a time when a tax increase and reduced public services are in our future. Voters can understand the need for both and may be willing to endure the pain but not if the underlying taxing structure is flawed and blatantly unfair. Further, if the process is viewed as politicized, we have the makings for yet another suburban revolution. For that reason Republican bastions in Nassau County should not be allowed to wonder whether the change in power on Election Day will result in Democratic communities being favored over GOP neighborhoods during countywide reassessment. Fairness or failure should be the watchwords.

Another question that must be addressed quickly is how Charles O’Shea, the former Republican assemblyman turned county tax assessor, will work with the Democrats now that both executive and legislative branches of county government are in their hands. While an independently elected to office, O’Shea is funded through the county executive’s budget and approved by the legislature.

Tax assessment can be brought to a crawl if funding is withheld under the guise of stanching county deficits. Rather than fall victim to the political swamp that surrounds tax reassessment, Suozzi would be advised to publicly say on the day he is sworn in that he will commit to the full funding of O’Shea’s office so that reassessment can move forward as quickly as possible.

With his mandate for change, Suozzi should consider innovative, even radical solutions to the generations-old inequities that have plagued local tax assessments and eliminate the lunacy that can vary tax rates from 30 to 50 percent on two sides of the same street. When courts find properties over-assessed the county refunds the older payment for the school as well as the general tax that funds essential government services. This is the heart of the county’s indebtedness on property tax refunds.

As President Franklin Roosevelt used innovative government programs to prime the pump of a depressed and economically ravaged America seventy years ago, Suozzi should consider a county wide system of tax exemptions for economically depressed areas. From encouraging moderate income starter homes to helping merchants reduce the cost of businesses, these benefits would not only stabilize neighborhoods but would encourage new investment throughout the county as a whole.

For weeks to come, a vitriolic public debate will continue to center on the size of the coming county tax increase.

The far larger issue however lies beneath the surface. Tax assessment inequities are extracting tens of millions of dollars from the public treasury as the courts recognize the legitimacy of tax certiorari lawsuits handed in daily by commercial and residential property owners. Fix that, and you can rebuild your county budget. Ignore it, and a 15% tax increase is just the beginning.